Understanding the expectations of millennial talent

26 nov 2018

Understanding the expectations of millennial talent

They’re 70% of the APAC workforce, so understanding how to unlock the potential of a millennial workforce is a critical route to success for any MNC leader.

In the previous chapters of ‘Leadership, Disrupted’, we showed how business models are being challenged because of the disruptive power of customers and competitors. Companies are either taking advantage of this or urgently scrambling to react. But changing business strategy and models because of these “external” factors are, as they say, only half of the story.

The other half is about people. In this chapter, we explain the key themes that came through on this topic from our interviews with the APAC leaders of 70 MNCs.

People first

As one leader we interviewed put it, “I can’t solve the disruption issue. It’s about 1st class people.” While a CEO from a completely different sector, simplified this even further, “Everything is about the people.”

And the people that pose the most immediate challenge are the millennial generation who have redefined almost every aspect of talent management in APAC.

“Globally, our workforce is 30% millennials. In APAC, it’s more than 70%.”

The expectations of millennial employees with regard to their employer and its leadership team are very different from previous generations. The perceived power in the employer/employee relationship has shifted and this requires leading in a different way.

One European executive was surprised at this challenge. “When I first took this job, my biggest aha moment was that we are 65% millennials and they are all local. The first-time leaders are all local and this is the potential we need to unlock.”

And the swing to millennials is a clearly defined trend, as another interviewee confirmed, “We are 68% millennials. In five years, that will be 80%.”

Understanding differences

Of course, not all millennials are the same, and it’s dangerous to make that assumption. A 26-year-old from India has had different experiences with her peers in China, or the US, or France.

“I think we are misled on the millennials topic. There is no clear definition on this and there is a danger we are talking about a US definition.”

That said, the generation that grew up with Facebook is generally more demanding, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. As one leader pointed out, “Some of the biggest names in history did their big things in their 20’s.”

Then, of course, there is the “entitled” conversation. Two interesting comments here offer very different perspectives.

“It’s not entitlement any more. It’s a two-way conversation”.

“The entitled generation is very difficult to please.”

Three strong themes

So, what is different? What do millennials expect of an employer?

Three themes came through in our interviews:

1. Purpose and place in society is important

One executive, from a long-established and global household brand, spoke about his millennial consumers. “Millennials are looking for meaning and purpose in brands. The intimacy of a small start-up has more appeal for the consumer today than the heritage [of the brand]. They are looking for a more authentic connection to brands and changing this perception is hard.”

But the same consumer is also an employee and they apply the same values to their employer. This comment was from an Industrial company CEO, “Young people today want to work for a company that makes a positive contribution. People are more aware now and they express this both as consumers and employees. The rising middle class in Asia is driving higher values.”

As young people research a potential employer, amongst other things, they are looking at environmental practices and track record. All of this is available now online and they can distinguish between what is spin and what is real. They want to know about how the mission of the company will benefit society and be part of the CSR program.

For companies that are on a mission to cure cancer, articulating an important purpose is not hard.

“There is a greater loyalty to people and causes than the organisation.” (Healthcare)

But for banks, oil companies, technology players, etc, this is not quite as simple.

“10 years ago, people were proud to work for a brand name like ours. Today, people need to feel they are doing something important.” (Financial Services)

“Millennials have a voice that asks what the company stands for.” (Technology)

MNC leaders are saying that they are being interviewed by the millennials they are trying to hire! “Today, the interview is two-way. The employee is interviewing us.” The leaders need to be prepared and they need to be authentic.

Some are very comfortable with this dynamic and use it to their advantage: “I think our purpose is very attractive. Millennials love it. They get pride from this.”

2. Millennials expect their employer to help them learn and grow

In this regard, we heard many stories of the unrealistic expectations of talented young employees. Stories abound of young people almost demanding career advancement that is way ahead of their experience and ability. This is particularly an issue in China, where it is common for people to move jobs often for a bigger title or a small pay rise. “People in Asia expect a new job every two years.”

The challenge for MNCs is that they need to maintain their high standards, but they also need to retain their high-potential employees.

Advancing the career of young talent is not just about pay and title though and this is where the solution lies. Comments from the leaders of five companies from completely different sectors seem to align.

“Flatten the organization and work in a project-based way as opposed to the traditional structure. A lot more planning and foresight is needed. It gives young people a chance to lead.”

“Employees are looking to make a difference and have a different experience. We are experimenting with a project-based workplace to give people progress.”

“What keeps people in their jobs is the quality of management. They need to provide clarity. We give them clarity about how to navigate and where they will go from here. We try to create an environment where everyone can be a leader, without being a manager and can grow their career at their own pace. We have a 3% turnover.”

“We are not promoting people quicker, but we give young people different projects that build their development. Our engagement score has improved significantly and it is mostly because of this.”

“What holds the millennials is who they work with. They want to work with smart people and learn.”

3. Millennials want direct communication with leadership

“The days of the command and control leader are over. Young people just don’t relate to this.”

They want to be informed and feel part of the big picture and what feels like a direct line of communication with senior leadership is required to do this.

The traditional cascading of important messages down through the company layers has always lost the power of the original message by the time it gets to the front line. Several leaders we interviewed have been experimenting with different forms of direct communication through various channels.

“E-mail twice a week about passion points. The formal stuff does not resonate. We measured this – the short communications do get read.”

“Today, the comms is less formal and in smaller chunks.”

“I now have a full-time exec comms person. Lots of short one-minute videos on the intranet.”

This direct connection comes with risk though, as the communication is now two-way. Young people have more confidence and want to be heard. “Young people have high expectations of me as a leader. If I don’t agree with them, they may walk away from the company rather than their idea.”

For leadership to be communicating directly at all levels, being accessible and willing to listen requires a change of attitude and new levels of humility and authenticity. More on this later though.

Harnessing the passion and talent of the millennial generation is a disruption in itself, but when 70% of your workforce is millennial, learning to lead them effectively is critical.

In the next chapter devoted to talent, we’ll reveal how to identify, attract, hire and retain the best people. And hear from those who have done just that.

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